Alexander Nemerov, Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov

JTF (just the facts): Published by Fraenkel Gallery in 2015 (here) and distributed by Artbook/D.A.P. Paperback with slipcover jacket, 106 pages, with 57 black-and-white and color illustrations. Includes two essays (“A Resemblance” and “The School”) by Alexander Nemerov. $29.95 (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: During her life, Diane Arbus’s reputation in the world of arts and letters was no match for that of her older brother’s, the poet and critic Howard Nemerov. Published regularly in The New Yorker, poetry consultant to Congress for two terms in the 1960s, an erudite and self-effacing ally of Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, and other poet-academics, he was a defender of formal verse against the Beats and other informalists. Only after her suicide in 1971, followed the next year by the MoMA retrospective and the Aperture monograph, did Arbus’s fame grow to rival Nemerov’s.

Since her death, the rebalancing of their relationship has gone from overshadowing to an almost total eclipse, as she now qualifies as one of the few photographers (Robert Frank and Cindy Sherman are others) that every alert and mutinous teenager emulates, while he, despite winning every major prize short of the Nobel any American writer could hope for, (Pulitzer, National Book, Bollingen) annually begs for critical rehabilitation and has yet to receive it, at least not from the young.

For those of us who appreciated his work years before hers, this reversal of fortune seems unfair and perplexing. Almost as perplexing as the genetic accident that two such outsized talents, both who grew up to reject the cosseted Manhattan existence they had inherited from their parents, should have developed artistic temperaments so thoroughly at odds.

Born in 1923, younger by three years, she seldom strayed far from their birthplace in New York City, finding in its dark energy everything she needed to fuel her life and work. Wickedly smart, she never went to college. After quitting both the fashion and advertising career she had established with her husband, and then their married life, she became a driven bohemian, supporting herself and her two young daughters on income as a freelance photographer and part-time teacher.

His career was a model of tweedy respectability. After Harvard and service as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force during WWII, he married and moved back to New York where he finished his first book of poems. Never entirely at home there, he took a number of teaching positions in universities around the Northeast. Academic environments satisfied his need for order and a code of honor untainted by the marketplace. In 1969 he secured a tenure position at Washington University in St. Louis which, with novelists Stanley Elkin and William Gass, he helped transform into one of the top writing programs in the country. He published more than three dozen books (fiction and criticism as well as poetry) and died in 1991.

These two essays by art historian Alexander Nemerov, Howard’s son, speculate on the ways brother and sister may have inspired each other, consciously or not, as both sympathetic and repellant examples for each other’s lives and careers.

Gliding between family stories and lines of his father’s poetry to Arbus’s photographs and paintings by Brueghel, Watteau, Vermeer, Rockwell, Pollock, and a landscape in the Nemerov living room, he offers a slew of provocative thoughts about Diane’s and Howard’s siblinghood and their complicated dedication to contrasting ideals of art.

Though it’s clear from the books in her library and from jottings in her notebooks that she loved poetry and was proud of what her older brother had decided to do with his life, he did not reciprocate in blessing his younger sister’s choice of profession.

“My father hated photography,” writes Alexander. “He did not believe it was an art. He thought it was just a mechanism, a copy of the world. ‘Film—there’s a disgusting locution,’ he said once. He was talking about moving pictures, but he might as well have been referring to photography, too. There was no imagination, no creativity, to it.”

In his 1965 memoir, Journal of the Fictive Life, about his struggle to write a novel, Nemerov wrote that he viewed the camera as an instrument of crass materialism. It was only “interested in surfaces.” Photography for his father, writes Alexander, “was part of the journalistic disenchantment of the world—a pragmatic wish to know, to expose, to develop. And it was a type of voyeurism. The medium for him had something to do with keyholes and peeping, as if every photograph showed his parents’ closed bedroom door.”

For these reasons, Howard in particular viewed with alarm where Diane chose to train her eye. “For this poet of flitting things, of dragonflies and cinnamon moths, of falling leaves and swimming koi, of the trellis, the stars, and the treetops between, her subjects were simply—and disgustingly—another world from his own.”

Alexander remembers being told once that when his father was asked by a guest to see his print of Identical Twins, which Diane had inscribed to him, “he brought it into the room holding it by one corner, as if it were literally a revolting phenomenon, like a bad smell or a wet rag fished out of the trash.” The photograph was allowed to deteriorate in a drawer, its surface creased and scratched by rubbing against other worthless things.

It isn’t clear if this story preceded or followed her death, an event that from all accounts devastated him. Less reticent poets might have composed books of odes or sonnet sequences delving into the loss. He published only one poem explicitly dedicated to her memory, the emotional occasion restrained by blank verse:

 

“To D____, Dead by Her Own Hand

 

My dear, I wonder if before the end

You ever thought about a children’s game

I’m sure you must have played it tooin which

You ran along a narrow garden wall

Pretending it to be a mountain ledge

So steep a snowy darkness fell away

On either side to deeps invisible;

And when you felt your balance being lost

You jumped because you feared to fall, and thought

For only an instant: That was when I died.

That was a life ago. And now you’ve gone,

Who would no longer play the grown-ups’ game

Where, balanced on the ledge above the dark,

You go on running and you don’t look down,

Nor ever jump because you fear to fall.”

 

Whether his father blamed photography for his sister’s suicide, Alexander doesn’t say. But his essay detects in certain other poems allusions to the mythic dangers that come with trapping secrets in boxes (Pandora) or behind doors (Bluebeard), as in these lines from the last stanza of Runes:

 

“To watch water, to watch running water

Is to know a secret, seeing the twisted rope

Of runnels on the hillside down the tilted field

In April’s light…

It is a secret. Or it is not to know

The secret, but to have it in your keeping,

A locked box, Bluebeard’s room, the deathless thing

Which it is death to open. Knowing the secret,

Keeping the secretherringbones of light

Ebbing on beaches, the huge artillery of tides

It is not knowing, it is not keeping,

But being the secret hidden from yourself.”

 

He might also have quoted from the earlier stanza, which shows his father imagining more positively what photography struggles to be:

 

“There is a threshold, that meniscus where

The strider walks on drowned waters, or

That tense, curved membrane of the camera’s lens

Which darkness holds against the battering light…”

 

According to Alexander’s reading of his father’s hard-to-read personality, he could deal with her images only through displacement—“that is, by speaking of art and artists he did approve, did admire, whose work would consequently give him the right space, the right opportunity, to come to terms with his sister’s photographs.”

One of his father’s favorite artists was Pieter Brueghel and Alexander notes the allegorical quality in some of Arbus’s photographs. He compares the 1568 painting of The Blind Leading the Blind to a 1970-71 photograph from the Untitled series, of children holding hands as they stroll the grounds at a NJ school for the retarded.

He believes that Arbus “imagined a world in which whatever is proverbial is pictorial. The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961 or the Albino sword swallower at a carnival, Md. 1970, for example, are not freaks…but allegorical figures whose significance we have lost. The wisdom they inscrutably display is hardly a cryptic game, either, but a revelation that, could we unlock it,”—and here he quotes a line from a poem by his father—“would have told us what we know and never say.”

This seems right and touches on the enlarging mystery and emotional frustration many feel in looking at Arbus pictures. Her subjects have been locked away from the world—in some cases literally. Banished from polite society, they have created their own in a parallel dimension—an allegorical one—we longer have access to. They understand each other but not us, nor we them. However partial and inept photography may be as a translator, it’s the best tool Arbus knows to decode the ineffable pain of exile and the weird pride of exclusivity.

Howard was not so embarrassed by Diane that he didn’t appropriate her work to help sell his. He thought enough of a 1962 photograph, of a concrete skull at the bottom of an underwater ride at Disneyland, to choose it as the cover for his 1963 book of New and Selected Poems. (What she thought of the publisher’s decision to crop it and color it orange so the image is not even recognizable as her work, we can only guess.)

But he continued to view her subject matter as distasteful. Two years later, in Journal of the Fictive Life, he discloses that his sister “is a professional photographer, whose pictures are spectacular, shocking, dramatic, and concentrate on subjects perverse and queer (freaks, professional transvestites, strong men, tattooed men, the children of the very rich).”

What troubles him is the fact that her photographs, like all photographs, “leave nothing unexamined.” They make “the constant claim that reality is visible… . The camera, whether in the hands of reporter or scientist or detective, pries into secrets, wants everything exposed and developed… . The camera wants to know.”

What’s so odd and sad is that a poet of remarkable acuity should be such a crude misinterpreter of silvery images that transformed the obvious. He was unable to see that his sister had taken qualities of photography that he loathed or feared and done something extraordinary with its literal-mindedness.

“There’s a kind of power thing about the camera,” Arbus said. “I mean everyone knows you’ve got some edge. You’re carrying some slight magic which does something to them. It fixes them in a way.”

Analyzing another picture from Untitled, of girls dressed in masks and carrying magic wands for Halloween, Alexander writes that “as her camera and flash get ready, so do their star-tipped strobes. Photography is a beguilement rather than a record, or only a record.” His father “misses how open and vulnerable these hospital patients are to her camera. His dwelling on demons and monsters misses the point of their poignancy…They are greater in their sincerity than any condescension we might imagine was preoccupying Arbus. She knows this and shares this humbling revelation with us.”

W.H. Auden, a formative influence on Nemerov, was similarly displeased by the nosiness of photography. Its invention marks the historical end to a kind of private experience. It may be that both poets also disliked its mechanical passivity and could not find any great artistry in a device that did not actively convert encounters with the world into words and sentences or brush-strokes and musical phrases.

“The world for my father responded only to his intelligence,” writes Alexander. “Nothing moves, nothing glows, not the wasp on the beach ball, not the fire spouting from the star, but that the poet’s mind makes it.”

“Arbus, by contrast, could see the world as it was without her. She simply gave it the chance to be as it was. What she saw, in one sense, was the ardency and joy of a world relieved of the burden—this is how I would put it—of having to be intelligent for her.”

Readers of Nemerov’s poems often feel him straining to make his images precise and metaphors fresh, whereas his sister and her camera did not think that her subjects had to “mirror her intelligence“ or were “required to give that intelligence back to her in a genuine way, ever-present, all the time.”

As Alexander notes, in a tone of exasperation with his father, what a terrible and mistaken hardship to believe that your task as an artist is forever to meet the challenge of being hyper-alert to the nuances of the world without respite: it’s “like going to the school of your own mind twenty-four hours a day.” (We can infer from this passage what it must have been like to grow up in the presence of such a disciplined and self-conscious figure, both as a son and as a sister.)

One of the sentimental clichés about Arbus is that she died from staring too deeply at the Gorgonic forbidden and that her voyeuristic daring, a gift to us, led to her own undoing. Howard Nemerov was not a romantic sap about suicide, and neither is his son. Both know the value of discretion and sticking to topics where writers can best be of service.

Studies of the photographer have not been a thriving field due to the notorious restrictions placed on scholars by the estate. Alexander Nemerov’s writings offer hope that this state of affairs could one day change. His slender book, an original work of art history rather than a memoir, is the most insightful contribution to Arbus criticism since the 2003 retrospective. May it be the impetus for more.

Collector’s POV: The estate of Diane Arbus is represented by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here) and Cheim & Read in New York (here). Arbus’ prints are ubiquitous at in the secondary markets, both in the photography and contemporary art sales. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 (lesser known images/posthumous prints) to up over $600000 (vintage icons).

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